Friday, January 11, 2019

2018 - A Year in Film

Typically in this space, you'd read my list for the year's best movies. But since you have the video above, I thought I'd just discuss some of things I've been thinking about over the past year in cinema.

The most heartbreaking news in the cinephile world was the closing down at the end of November of FilmStruck, the streaming service from Turner Classic Movies that also served as an online home for the Criterion Collection. In the blip of only two years, it was a beacon of light for the serious moviegoer, a reservoir of some of the world's greatest art amidst the glut of fast food options who are satisfied merely to have its users consume its content and chill. In the short amount of time it existed, I felt I was a smarter movie watcher and frankly I'm gutted that I and other like-minded (and would-be like-minded) folks no longer have this as a resource.

The sadness of FilmStruck's closing was somewhat alleviated by the announcement that Criterion would soon launch its own standalone streaming service in spring. And while that is most certainly a wonderful piece of news, to be honest, even though I purchased the add-on Criterion channel to FilmStruck, it wasn't the resource I used most. I always knew I could get a large selection of Criterion titles on DVD, either through Netflix or my local libraries. Not to mention titles are available through the library-only service, Kanopy.

But FilmStruck would introduce a wide variety of obscure or somewhat forgotten titles, ones that didn't necessarily have the sheen of the Criterion logo on it. More than anything, though, is that the service provided a level of curation little seen (and in most cases unseen) in some of the more popular streaming services. A Netflix algorithm, intricate and rigorous though it may be, can't--or, perhaps more accurately, wouldn't--decide to curate a retrospective of films directed by Nikita Mikhalkov or George Cukor, or decide to have a weekly series of films dedicated to women directors.

That was the real value a service like FilmStruck provided. They didn't just see themselves as a virtual warehouse for these types of films. It also saw itself as a steward for intelligent and thoughtful cinephilia. And that's the case both for the budding cinephile as it is for the veteran one. I can only imagine the kind of thrill someone just starting to explore the world outside mainstream, American cinema would feel having FilmStruck at their fingertips. I, myself, have been serious about film for about two decades and I always feel like I'm still learning and growing as a movie watcher. FilmStruck, during it's tragically brief run, was constantly allowing me to do so.


On the other side of the coin is MoviePass, the monthly subscription service that allowed you to watch a different theatrical release "every" "single" "day." The quotation marks are purposeful because, as any user of the service over the past year will know, what you were allowed to do with your card changed drastically almost daily.

Though MoviePass made the move to its popular $10/month subscription plan well into the second half of 2017, it wasn't until 2018 that we would see the larger implication of its drop in price. The results seem to have been fairly predictable. Multiple price changes and multiple changes to its basic services all pointed to the obvious conclusion that the business model wasn't sustainable. It was, presumably, sustainable back in 2012, when I initially joined at $35/month and even when I stayed after an increase the following year to $45/month. At that price, it caters to the serious moviegoer. The severely discounted price meant a fundamental change to its user base.

The shutting down of FilmStruck and the atrophying of MoviePass may seem like only tangentially related bits of news, but it raises the larger question of the subscription model as it relates to movie watching.

Subscription services seem the dominant mode for streaming at home. This isn't unlike the cable model we've grown used to for years, except of course that only one subscription basically got you everything plus some extra fees for premium channels. Now, the glut of streaming services stretches content out over a wider area. There are the broader services (Netflix, Hulu) and the ones becoming increasingly more niche. WarnerMedia, the company that shut down FilmStruck, also shut down Drama Fever, a site dedicated to Korean dramas. Both of which were done apparently with an eye towards creating a broad service of its own.

There's a lot to unpack here when it comes to on-demand streaming. But what happens when you transpose all of this to the theatrical model? Perhaps MoviePass, then, is cable TV: one subscription to watch basically anything that's out. But in the wake of its demise, AMC created its own service, A-List. And while AMC is the largest theater chain in the country and I'm happy to say does play its share of non-mainstream movies (depending on where you live), this starts to move into the direction of the streaming model. What happens if Regal offers its own subscription? And then your local art house? If you have Netflix, but not Hulu, then you watch Netflix, but not Hulu. If you subscribe to the multiplex, then maybe you don't take the time to bother going to the art house anymore. How it all plays out is anyone's guess. But there's a danger that the culture gets flattened. That the movies that have always been on the fringes get further marginalized. We're a worst-case scenario away from only getting Marvel movies. (Disney themselves will soon premiere its own service, Disney+ in late 2019, meaning those Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar movies on Netflix will eventually disappear, further complicating the landscape.)

But it's the movies we're here to discuss and, thankfully, we haven't reached the point where simply providing content isn't the means to its own end. I called last year a great year for movies, where I could've made the case for much of the titles on the list as being the year's best. While I don't think that's the case for the top spot here, the list as a whole is bursting at the seams. Deep as the list in the video above is, I was still heartbroken to leave so many others off and I look as forward to again watching those that missed the cut as those that made it.

At the very top of the list are two filmmakers who often appear at or near the top of this list in the past. I've long said Hirokazu Kore-eda is my favorite working international director and he's made a number of top 10 lists since I've been compiling them, including several other honorable mentions. Barry Jenkins has only directed three features and none of them have placed lower than #5 on this list, including now his second #1 in three years.

I'll also say that, though I somewhat trashed Netflix above, the company placed two movies in my top 10 and scattered several others throughout my list, so mine or anyone else's prediction of the demise of cinema because of streaming needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

And in lamenting the fact that I had to leave so many off of even a top-25 list, in honor of and in hoping for a great year in movies for 2019, here I am squeezing another 19 movies (listed alphabetically) that deserves some love. Happy New Year everyone!

Blockers (Kay Cannon)
Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu)
The Day After (Hong Sang-soo)
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher)
Mission: Impossible -- Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Never Goin' Back (Augustine Frizzell)
Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh)
Private Life (Tamara Jenkins)
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
Searching (Aneesh Chaganty)
Set It Up (Claire Scanlon)
Shirkers (Sandi Tan)
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)
Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)
Widows (Steve McQueen)
Wildlife (Paul Dano)
Zama (Lucrecia Martel)

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